Note: An earlier draft was published inadvertently on April 1, 2023.
“The ED raids have brought all opposition parties to one platform. It has done what the electorate could not do,” Narendra Modi thundered in the Lok Sabha. He was referring to opposition’s floor coordination during the budget session on the Modi-Adani nexus.
And last week, the hasty disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from the Lok Sabha brought the entire opposition together to condemn the action. Mamata Banerjee, the most ardent advocate of a non-Congress opposition front, said: “While BJP leaders with criminal antecedents are inducted into the cabinet, opposition leaders are disqualified for their speeches”. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal was more emphatic: “This battle is not Congress’s battle. It is to save the country from dictatorship, from an arrogant individual.”
Welcoming the bonhomie, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh said: “There is a consensus that we should now take the job of building opposition unity in a systematic way”. His party party chief Mallikarjun Kharge concurred: “The Congress will remain in touch with other parties”
The floor coordination began against the Adani-Modi nexus. Will the new show of camaraderie lead to a united fight against the Modi-Shah regime in 2024?
It looks so — going by the prevailing mood in the opposition camp. Nineteen parties, including the TMC, were attending the strategy meet at Kharge’s chamber since March 28. The spirit of accommodation is such that there was a broad understanding among the leaders to avoid raking up divisive issues. The Sarvakar controversy which has caused difficulties for the Uddhav-led Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, was quickly resolved after Sharad Pawar’s brief intervention. Unlike earlier, this time the Congress held extensive consultations on moving a non-confidence motion against Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla.
The Trinamool’s decision to dump its ekla chalo line and attend the opposition campaign has been a game changer. For, the TMC chief was more forthcoming when she urged that opposition parties should unitedly fight the 2024 elections. “Who leads the alliance is not important,” she said. Mamata’s support emerged after a series of informal contacts among senior leaders. Accordingly, TMC leaders, for the first time participated in joint actions and attended Kharge’s strategy meetings.
Indications are that the focus of the informal contacts will now be on holding joint campaigns and rallies in defence of democracy and against the dictatorial trends. Attended by senior leaders, such programmes are expected to create public awareness about what political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls the dangers of the ‘rule of tyranny’. Simultaneously, joint campaigns are expected to inculcate a better relationship between various opposition groups.
There is also talk of preparing a set of agreeable ‘charge sheets’ against the Modi regime on which the opposition could launch a joint campaign. This reportedly include the Modi-Adani nexus, the misuse of central agencies like ED and CBI, gubernatorial meddling in opposition-ruled states, the routing of the bulk of corporate funds to the BJP’s coffers through election bonds, restoration of the old pension scheme which many opposition governments have announced and reversing budget cuts in MGNREGS.
However, the fact remains that the way towards opposition unity is riddled with hurdles. The first is the regional leaders’ turf war with the Congress. At the national level, they are reluctant to concede leadership status to the the Congress. The TMC and BRS opened national offices in Delhi. AAP and TMC contested elections in faraway states like Goa, Gujarat and Uttarakhand. But barring the AAP in Punjab, they drew a blank.
At the local level, the regional bosses also have to confront the Congress as their electoral rivals. Mamata Bannerjee was so furious at the recent Congress victory in Sagardighi that she threatened to contest the 2024 Lok Sabha polls on her own. Though she followed it up by mobilising support for her own non-Congress opposition front, the response has been lukewarm.
As for the Congress, its very survival as a dominant force depends entirely on its performance in the forthcoming assembly polls. If it loses its two North Indian bastions – Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – it will be seen as incapable of checkmating the Modi-Shah juggernaut. On the other hand, if the Congress wins any two of the four states, it will give it sufficient political heft to claim a leading say in opposition alliance. Either way, the assembly elections this year will resolve the issue of the Congress factor.
As a functioning national party, the Congress has already stolen the march over the Mamata-led regional group as the most aggressive crusader against the Modi-Shah regime. Unlike others, it alone has an institutionalized mechanism for regularly targeting the government for its misdeeds and abuse of power. While its leaders came out with daily exposures on the PM’s involvement with the controversial Adani grou and such other issues, most regional party bosses silently watched from their distant state capitals.
Second, the Congress already commands the trust of regional parties like the DMK, Maharashtra’s MVA groups, Bihar’s RJD-JD(U) combine, the Left, JMM, IUML and MDMK. M.K. Stalin is a consistent advocate of a Congress-led opposition alliance. Similarly, JD(U) general secretary K.C. Tyagi has also reiterated Nitish Kumar’s assertion that no opposition front was possible without Congress support.
The first sign of a thaw in the opposition’s troubled internal relationship appeared July last when parties like the Congress, AAP and Trinamul Congress jointly responded to the Supreme Court’s endorsement of draconian changes in the PMLA. This rare truce came about after considering six drafts. Later, on the eve budget session, for the first time, 16 parties met at Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s chamber and agreed on a joint strategy to hit the Modi government where it hurts most: to seek a discussion on the Adani imbroglio and demand a JPC on the nexus between Adani and Narendra Modi.
The AAP, the worst victim of bullying by the ED-CBI and obstructions by the Lt Governor, has been most vocal in protests in parliament. Its representatives regularly attended the meetings at Kharge’s chamber. The party has held its own street protests in Delhi, Srinagar and Jammu against the Modi-Adani nexus. The TMC and BRS also joined the protests on the floor of parliament even though they were not regularly present at Kharge’s chamber.
State-level alliance building is already in the works under Akhilesh Yadav in UP, Pawar-Uddhav in Maharashtra and Nitish-Tejashwi in Bihar. Tejashwi Yadav has announced a similar understanding in Jharkhand. DMK boss M.K. Stalin made a fervent plea for a joint opposition platform and so did Nitish Kumar.
Optimists among the political leaders set their hopes on India’s prevailing political dynamics. They argue that even limited seat sharing among the opposition groups in key states can upset the BJP’s electoral calculations. Some psephologists see state-level understandings as the best available scenario for the opposition. As per this, even without seat sharing, the present opposition constituents could sweep the polls in states like Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Kerala and West Bengal. Similarly, an alliance does not make any difference to the Congress in its fight against the BJP in states like MP, Rajasthan, Himachalt, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh. This is because of the bipolar politics prevailing in those states. Thus for all practical purposes, an opposition alliance matters only in half a dozen ‘middle’ states.
Note: An earlier draft was published inadvertently on April 1, 2023.